Alabama basketball: Crimson Tide guards, led by Jahvon Quinerly, are why Bama is primed to win it all
Alabama’s basketball renaissance has been born out of its beautifully blended backcourt.
More than any other facet that has factored into the Crimson Tide being 2 precious wins from the first Final Four in school history, it’s ultimately been mostly about the guys who have the ball the most.
For politicians in November, it always comes back to the economy, stupid.
For college basketball teams in March (and just maybe early April), it’s always been about the guards, and if you have enough of them in quantity and quality.
Bama has both.
It has strength in numbers, in every way. In the amount of guards it can unleash at opponents and in the numbers those guards combine for. The Tide are the top seed in the South Region and the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament because they have just the right backcourt mix to go with the sturdy frontcourt and overall steely resilience.
For Nick Saban, the legendary guy who chases national championships in Tuscaloosa during normal times, which this most certainly isn’t, his foundation is always all about the offensive line.
For Nate Oats, who’s been at Bama for about 5 minutes and who’s currently doing the championship chasing during the wonderfully upside-down spring of 2023 in T-Town, that foundation is his guards — the veteran ones and the young ones who’ve combined to put Crimson Tide basketball on the brink of doing something historical.
Beyond Brandon Miller’s brilliance (and mental toughness), beyond Charles Bediako’s lockdown rim protection and beyond Noah Clowney’s emergence, there stands that group of gritty guards who allowed Alabama to win 16 of its 18 conference games, steamroll its way to an SEC regular-season title and replicate that winter-long dominance during a 3-day conference tournament blitz in Nashville where this so far unflappable team became the winningest in Alabama basketball history.
Then those same guards put their heads down and helped the Tide breeze their way into the Sweet 16 for the 10th time in program history, fueling easy victories over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Maryland. On Friday night in Louisville, the journey resumes and the dream is on the line once more as the 31-5 Crimson Tide battle 5th-seeded San Diego State (29-6), which dominated the Mountain West Conference the way Bama did the SEC in winning both the regular-season and conference tournaments.
That can only mean 1 thing about the Aztecs — they don’t often get rattled. Sure enough, they are a guard-oriented team, too, the kind that can end that Alabama dream in 2 unfortunate hours, if the Tide guards don’t do what they’ve done so often and so well over the past 5 months. It’s a scary reality, but it’s one that someone like Jahvon Quinerly is most definitely ready for. Quinerly isn’t only the team’s most important guard, he is the head of the snake, so to speak, for Oats. He’s been through seemingly everything, so nearly all of the time he’s ready for anything.
And that’s a good thing for Alabama, because to go where no Bama team has gone before, Quinerly is the 1 player who can’t let the Crimson Tide down. He averages a hair below 9 points per game and isn’t even 1 of Bama’s top 3 scorers, and yet this is absolutely true. He’s the leader, the lifeblood and the glue guy, and the fact that he leads the Tide in assists at 3.6 per game doesn’t begin to explain his importance.
The savvy, 6-1 senior from Hackensack, New Jersey, has lived NCAA Tournament hurt and heartbreak and lived to tell about it. Most everyone who cares about Alabama basketball remembers what happened just a year ago in San Diego, where Quinerly had to be helped off the floor with a significant left knee injury suffered at — of all places — the Aztecs’ home arena. Suddenly, Quinerly’s day was over and soon so was Alabama’s season, as the Tide fell apart in a blowout 1st-round loss to Notre Dame.
No Quinerly, no chance.
Bama was lost without its leader, who suffered a torn ACL.
Talk about coming full circle, San Diego style.
On Friday night, after a season of restoration, resurgence and reinvention, Quinerly will take the floor against the team that plays its home games at the site of his lowest point, looking to help carry his program to an Elite Eight berth on Sunday. When this season began in early November, Oats didn’t even know when Quinerly would be available after an offseason of rehab.
It was all a big mystery.
Then this historical season began on Nov. 7, without Quinerly.
Incredibly, he only missed 2 games, making his debut on Nov. 15 against South Alabama and never missing a game thereafter. Quinerly played in 34 games in a row from that night on, straight on through the 2nd-round beatdown of Maryland last Saturday. It was a remarkable recovery, and it’s no coincidence that his consistent availability has translated into an endless stream of victories for these record-setting Crimson Tide.
Quinerly plays, and Alabama generally wins. It’s been a simple formula, and it hasn’t even mattered whether Quinerly started. In an unlikely twist, he transformed himself from star to 6th man this season. A few people noticed, too, as Quinerly was named SEC Co-Sixth Man of the Year a few weeks ago, the reward for his excellence and selflessness, as he took a reduced role that helped him grind his way through the season while allowing Alabama’s stable of freshmen, led by Miller, to emerge.
It was a win-win combination for everyone involved and, not surprisingly, the wins have really never stopped for the Tide. Quinerly’s fingerprints are all over this magical season despite the fact that he only averages about 21 minutes per game. For him and for the Tide, less has meant more, a lot more, because Quinerly’s command over everything in his basketball orbit has never been stronger after everything the guy has already been through.
There was the transfer from Villanova, before having to sit out as a redshirt during his first year in Tuscaloosa.
There was the high of capturing the Most Outstanding Player award in leading the Tide to the SEC Tournament title in 2021, before the lowest of lows in San Diego when his ACL gave out and seemingly left him with the longest road back imaginable.
Only that road wasn’t as long as Quinerly or Oats feared. Eight months later, the resilient leader on arguably the most resilient team in the country returned, and after he and his fellow guards helped the Tide to the best regular season in program history, Oats boasted that his team is getting the “March version of JQ” as the postseason beckoned.
Oats’ prophecy steeped in good faith and positive feeling has come to fruition in March, as Quinerly poured in 22 points to power the Tide past Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament final on March 12, before duplicating that point total 6 days later in Bama’s 2nd-round whitewashing of Maryland. The March version of Quinerly has indeed showed up with a vengeance, and since the SEC Tournament began, Co-Sixth Man of the Year Quinerly has become starter Quinerly, with Oats perhaps sensing it was finally time to plug his coach on the floor into the starting lineup.
Whatever the chief reason behind Oats’ move, it’s worked, and Alabama’s newfound basketball machine hasn’t missed a beat. Suddenly, the Tide have a senior stalwart back in their starting backcourt to go nicely with junior Mark Sears, who has been a rock this season, playing in all 36 games while averaging 12.4 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists to go with his team-leading 1.2 steals per game.
Bama’s new starting backcourt was the backbone to its 3-games-in-3-days tour de force in the SEC Tournament, as the Tide captured their 2nd conference tourney crown in 3 years with Quinerly at the forefront.
Then when the dress rehearsal that is the SEC tourney gave way to the do-or-die NCAA tourney, Quinerly and Sears were ready to rock and roll at the jump, with both scoring in double figures in the 1st-round blowout of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. They helped the Crimson Tide score a jaw-dropping 54 points in the 1st half, as Bama came out like gangbusters in what it hopes will be the most consequential NCAA Tournament in program history.
If that is to happen over the next 11 days or so, Bama will need Quinerly and Sears to be at their absolute best, starting against San Diego State, whose top 4 scorers just happen to be guards.
But what about that aforementioned strength in numbers that Oats boasts with his guards? Because it’s hardly just been about the savvy Quinerly and the steady Sears. There is strong backcourt support off the bench, with sophomore Nimari Burnett, who averages 5.8 points and 2.0 rebounds, along with the freshmen duo of Jaden Bradley and Rylan Griffen, who’ve conquered the tricky transition from the high school by playing in all 36 games.
Bradley and Griffen’s durability simply cannot be ignored, especially because they’re both key bench cogs in a backcourt brigade that is playing under the duress and stress of being a national championship contender, not to mention a contender that has felt the sting of adversity coming from the capital murder case that has engulfed the program since January.
Bradley is averaging 6.5 points, 2.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists; Griffen has a strikingly similar stat line of 6.0 points, 2.6 rebounds and 0.8 assists. Neither shoots particularly well, but their consistency and availability off the bench have mattered the most during a long, exhilarating and exhausting season when Bama has worn a constant target on its back usually reserved for the football team.
In March of 2023, it’s Crimson Tide basketball that gladly lugs around that championship-or-bust burden, and while Miller is by far its leading scorer, leading rebounder and highest-profile player, Bama’s backcourt is most definitely its backbone.
While Bediako and Clowney guard the rim, it’s the Crimson Tide’s guards that make them go, and they seemingly haven’t stopped going since November. Now it’s March, that queasy, nerve-racking time when solid guard play can give you national championship trophies to hold up while confetti rains down.
And if the unselfish quintet of Quinerly, Sears, Bradley, Griffen and Burnett can continue managing the biggest moments like they have for most of the 1st 36 games, then this already special season can turn historical on the first Monday night of April in Houston.